Korean Series Preview
October 26th, 2008 By Shinsano
Well, it’s been a very exciting year in Korean baseball, hasn’t it? After all, I ranked the team at #1 everytime I compiled KBO rankings this season. I said that if Kim Kwang-hyun pitched at a level anywhere close to his potential that the Wyvrens would repeat. That the team had no stars, and was without any major weaknesses. At times, SK’s story has gotten a little boring to write about.
And it’s not like I’m some genius Korean baseball analyst. Anyone who follows the league might have told you the same thing. They might have expected Kia, with its four players with MLB experience, to give SK a small run. Or they might have suggested that Samsung or Hanwha, with small ballparks and enough power to hit the ball out of them, might have flirted with the top spot.
But as predictable as SK is, the team is something to behold – if you like baseball played well, it’s fun to watch. They do everything at least pretty well. If I had to pick one outstanding strength I guess I’d say starting pitching, but that’s almost solely because of wunderkind Kim Kwang-hyun (16-4, 2.39 ERA). After him there’s Che Byung-ryong (10-2, 2.70 ERA), who would probably be a No. 1 starter on one or two KBO teams. Then there’s foreigner Kenny Rayborn, who is decent, but not by any means dominating (5-3, 3.30). After Rayborn things get a little patchwork.
Mostly, what makes SK arguably the best professional baseball team in Asia – even though the league itself is still weaker than the NPB – is that the management has somehow installed a winning consciousness top to bottom. Everyone, with the exception of Kim Kwang-hyun, who I think could win 15 games in the majors, ends up playing at a higher level than they might on another team. The Wyvrens don’t outspend the other teams, and while Koreans seem quick to give manager Kim Sung-keun a lot of the credit because he’s an elder statesman of the game, I don’t think that’s necessarily it either.
It’s got to be the organization itself. How boring is that?
There is a team opposing SK in the Korean Series, and the Doosan Bears supposedly have a chance to win as well. Doosan played SK pretty well (8-10) during the season, and swept SK in a series back in May. The Bears match up pretty well with SK in the sense that Seoul’s finest have a number of spray hitters, play pretty good defense and have a strong bullpen. In last year’s Korean Series Doosan had the magic arm of Daniel Rios (as it turns out, too magic), and rode him to a quick 1-0 series lead. As it would turn out, it was SK’s ability to topple Rios in Game 4 that would completely change the tone of the series, enable SK to tie the series, and then go on to win the next two games for the crown. Guess who started Game 4 for SK?
But in 2008 Doosan has no stopper. Kim Sun-woo started Game 1 versus Samsung, and was turned to again in Game 5, but pitched more like he did earlier in the season when he was demoted to the minors. Matt Randel will get the ball in Game 1 and is capable of putting together a good Game 1, but his numbers were down after three very good seasons in Korea that saw him win more than 10 games. This year Randel was 9-9 with a 4.46 ERA. His previous worst was 3.25. His peripherals, to the extent that such stats exist in Korea, aren’t bad, which makes me think he was somewhat unlucky this year. He was very good against SK this season, going 2-1 with a 1.27 ERA in 35 1/3 innings. There might be something to that, but Randel was pitched his worst baseball in August and September with a 7.36 (in 1 start) and then a 5.40 ERA.
SK has three batters who finished 2008 with OBPs over .400. Gee, that’s a bonus. If there’s a “best offensive player” on SK it’s Park Jae-hong, who is a minor MVP candidate, and put up a .318/.420/.538 slash line with 20 HRs and 72 RBIs. Choi Jung is also a good hitter from the right side and posted a .328/.410/.480, leading the team in runs scored with 77. Fourteen-year veteran Kim Jae-hyun, who had a poor 2007, but ended up winning the MVP of last year’s Korean Series, had a solid 2008 in 297 ABs (.310/.426/.488).
SK had two other players top 100 hits (there were four on the team and four others over 85), Jung Gun-woo, and Lee Jin-yeong. To put it simply, SK gets on base a lot and can score runs. A new wrinkle to the offense this season has been the running game, which, as I detailed in my Doosan/Samsung series preview, is the Bears strength. This season SK has made a conscious effort to run more and the team boosted its team total SBs to 170, up from 121 last season, and even comparable with Doosan’s league leading 189.
SK’s bullpen is led by sidearmer Cheong Dae-hyun, who was more or less used as the closer for the Olympic team. Following the Olympics he wasn’t his usual self and was given the better part of a month off. He led the team in saves with 20, but he was one of nine SK relievers to get a save. No. 2 on that list is Estaban Yan, who was sent home after a series of poor outings late in the year. Instead, Kenny Ray will be the second foreign player for SK. Ray was ineffective through five appearances with SK, so I’m not sure what his role will be if any. But SK’s bullpen is loaded: Jeong Woo-lam, Yoon Kil-hyeon, Joh Woo-cheong, and even 17-year vet Ka Deok-yeom, who was bad early in the season, but didn’t allow a run in August or September.
Again, to refer to my Doosan/Samsung preview, the Bears bullpen is also a strength, but it got a ton of action during the Samsung series, and middle reliever/spot starter Lee Hae-cheon has become a focal point of the rotation, having started two games (in addition to appearing as a reliever in two others). I admire Lee’s rubber arm, but he’d have a hard time even cracking SK’s playoff roster.
Prediction:There’s no reason to think Doosan will win this series. Not one. That said, the Bears have played SK well during the regular season in both 2007 and 2008. The teams also had two bench clearing huff-and-puffs during the 2007 Korean Series, and I think Doosan will be up for this series. The fact that SK’s most dominant player is a pitcher who will likely throw in just one or two games, makes it hard for me to just say SK will sweep. If Matt Randel can continue his success against SK and somehow lead the Bears to a Game 1 win it will change the complexion of the series.
But I think in the end, the long layoff will help SK. There’s some logic in sports that suggests that sometimes teams that have long layoffs don’t come back sharp, but SK was the first team to start spring training this season (in January) and ended last season with the Asia Series Cup in Japan in mid November. In other words, the Wyvrens have never stopped playing, and I don’t suspect they’ll stop for several years to come. They’re a machine and something to behold. They’ll be ready for Doosan and will take care of business, winning their second straight KBO championship in five games.